I raised a number of questions about the nature of the Agency’s incident, and its implications, in a post I published earlier in 2021. In this post, I provide an update as well as some further analysis of the incident based on the information that NSIRA revealed in August 2021.
I begin by outlining the additional details that NSIRA has provided about the incident and juxtapose that information with what has been provided by the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (CCCS) about the Microsoft Exchange vulnerability that led to NSIRA’s incident. I note that NSIRA (or the team(s) responsible for securing its networks) seems to have failed to either patch NSIRA’s on-premises Exchange server when the vulnerability was first announced, or they were unable to successfully implement mitigation measures intended to prevent the exploitation of the server. The result was employee information was obtained by an unauthorized party.
Next, I note the extent to which NSIRA’s update responds to the initial questions I raised when writing about this incident in April 2021. On the whole, most of the questions I raised have been answered to at least some extent.
I conclude by discussing the significance of the information that was exfiltrated from NSIRA, the likelihood that a nation-state actor either conducted the operation or now has access to the exfiltrated data, what this incident may suggest for NSIRA’s IT security, and finally raise questions about NSIRA’s decommissioning of its Protected networks.
I have a new draft paper that outlines why the Canadian government should develop, and publish, the guidelines it uses when determining whether to acquire, use, or disclose computer- and computer-system vulnerabilities. At its crux, the paper argues that an accountability system was developed in the 1970s based on the intrusiveness of government wiretaps and that state-used malware is just as, if not more so, intrusive. Government agencies should be held to at least as high a standard, today, as they were forty years ago (and, arguably, an even higher one today than in the past). It’s important to recognize that while the paper argues for a focus on defensive cybersecurity — disclosing vulnerabilities as a default in order to enhance the general security of all Canadians and residents of Canada, as well as to improve the security of all government of Canada institutions — it recognizes that some vulnerabilities may be retained to achieve a limited subset of investigative and intelligence operations. As such, the paper does not rule out the use of malware by state actors but, instead, seeks to restrict the use of such malware while also drawing its use into a publicly visible accountability regime.
I’m very receptive to comments on this paper and will seek to incorporate feedback before sending the paper to an appropriate journal around mid-December.
Computer security vulnerabilities can be exploited by unauthorized parties to affect targeted systems contrary to the preferences their owner or controller. Companies routinely issue patches to remediate the vulnerabilities after learning that the vulnerabilities exist. However, these flaws are sometimes obtained, used, and kept secret by government actors, who assert that revealing vulnerabilities would undermine intelligence, security, or law enforcement operations. This paper argues that a publicly visible accountability regime is needed to control the discovery, purchase, use, and reporting of computer exploits by Canadian government actors for two reasons. First, because when utilized by Canadian state actors the vulnerabilities could be leveraged to deeply intrude into the private lives of citizens, and legislative precedent indicates that such intrusions should be carefully regulated so that the legislature can hold the government to account. Second, because the vulnerabilities underlying any exploits could be discovered or used by a range of hostile operators to subsequently threaten Canadian citizens’ and residents’ of Canada personal security or the integrity of democratic institutions. On these bases, it is of high importance that the government of Canada formally develop, publish, and act according to an accountability regime that would regulate its agencies’ exploitation of computer vulnerabilities.
Over the past several years I’ve undertaken research exploring how, how often, and for what reasons governments in Canada access telecommunications data. As one facet of this line of research I worked with Dr. Adam Molnar to understand the regularity at which policing agencies across Canada have sought, and obtained, warrants to lawfully engage in real-time electronic surveillance. Such data is particularly important given the regularity at which Canadian law enforcement agencies call for new powers; how effective are historical methods of capturing communications data? How useful are the statistics which are tabled by governments? We answer these questions in a paper published with the Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, entitled ‘Government Surveillance Accountability: The Failures of Contemporary Canadian Interception Reports.” The abstract, follows, as do links to the Canadian interception reports upon which we based our findings.
Real time electronic government surveillance is recognized as amongst the most intrusive types of government activity upon private citizens’ lives. There are usually stringent warranting practices that must be met prior to law enforcement or security agencies engaging in such domestic surveillance. In Canada, federal and provincial governments must report annually on these practices when they are conducted by law enforcement or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, disclosing how often such warrants are sought and granted, the types of crimes such surveillance is directed towards, and the efficacy of such surveillance in being used as evidence and securing convictions.
This article draws on an empirical examination of federal and provincial electronic surveillance reports in Canada to examine the usefulness of Canadian governments’ annual electronic surveillance reports for legislators and external stakeholders alike to hold the government to account. It explores whether there are primary gaps in accountability, such as where there are no legislative requirements to produce records to legislators or external stakeholders. It also examines the extent to which secondary gaps exist, such as where there is a failure of legislative compliance or ambiguity related to that compliance.
We find that extensive secondary gaps undermine legislators’ abilities to hold government to account and weaken capacities for external stakeholders to understand and demand justification for government surveillance activities. In particular, these gaps arise from the failure to annually table reports, in divergent formatting of reports between jurisdictions, and in the deficient narrative explanations accompanying the tabled electronic surveillance reports. The chronic nature of these gaps leads us to argue that there are policy failures emergent from the discretion granted to government Ministers and failures to deliberately establish conditions that would ensure governmental accountability. Unless these deficiencies are corrected, accountability reporting as a public policy instrument threatens to advance a veneer of political legitimacy at the expense of maintaining fulsome democratic safeguards to secure the freedoms associated with liberal democratic political systems. We ultimately propose a series of policy proposals which, if adopted, should ensure that government accountability reporting is both substantial and effective as a policy instrument to monitor and review the efficacy of real-time electronic surveillance in Canada.
The Canadian SIGINT Summaries includes downloadable copies, along with summary, publication, and original source information, of leaked CSE documents.
Parsons, Christopher; and Molnar, Adam. (2021). “Horizontal Accountability and Signals Intelligence: Lesson Drawing from Annual Electronic Surveillance Reports,” David Murakami Wood and David Lyon (Eds.), Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence: The Canadian Case.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing lessons from the stagnation of ‘lawful access’ legislation in Canada,” Michael Geist (ed.), Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era (Ottawa University Press).
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians,” Telecom Transparency Project.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Beyond the ATIP: New methods for interrogating state surveillance,” in Jamie Brownlee and Kevin Walby (Eds.), Access to Information and Social Justice (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).
Bennett, Colin; Parsons, Christopher; Molnar, Adam. (2014). “Forgetting and the right to be forgotten” in Serge Gutwirth et al. (Eds.), Reloading Data Protection: Multidisciplinary Insights and Contemporary Challenges.
Bennett, Colin, and Parsons, Christopher. (2013). “Privacy and Surveillance: The Multi-Disciplinary Literature on the Capture, Use, and Disclosure of Personal information in Cyberspace” in W. Dutton (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies.
McPhail, Brenda; Parsons, Christopher; Ferenbok, Joseph; Smith, Karen; and Clement, Andrew. (2013). “Identifying Canadians at the Border: ePassports and the 9/11 legacy,” in Canadian Journal of Law and Society 27(3).
Parsons, Christopher; Savirimuthu, Joseph; Wipond, Rob; McArthur, Kevin. (2012). “ANPR: Code and Rhetorics of Compliance,” in European Journal of Law and Technology 3(3).